Is it possible to actually go long-distance touring on an electric-powered motorcycle? E-motorcycle manufacturer Zero says it is on its Zero DSR and Alan Cathcart came to California to test their claim.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHIL HAWKINS
Sales of electric motorcycles continue to rise, not just in the USA, as ongoing improvements in range and reduced charging time make them ever more appealing to customers seeking convenient and affordable personal transportation. At the point that industry giants Harley-Davidson and Polaris are both committed to developing non-combustion-engined products, it’s surely only a matter of time before what is at present a burgeoning two-wheeled niche sector becomes a mainstream segment of the motorcycle marketplace.
But while it’s one thing to swish along enjoying the sound of silence on your daily commute to work and back, or to Go Green in running errands or visiting friends aboard a plug-in-and-play electric two-wheeler, it’s quite another to do any serious mileage on it—isn’t it? Like, say, making a week-long tour of Northern California, going from sea level on the Pacific Coast to more than 8000 feet in elevation in visiting the Yosemite National Park, over 200 miles inland in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. Yet that’s exactly what I set out to do earlier this year aboard a 2016 Zero DSR ZF13.0 produced by the global leader of the E-biking sector, California-based Zero Motorcycles, which this year celebrates its 10th birthday. Zero, formerly named Electricross, was founded in 2006 by former NASA engineer Neal Saiki, who started the company in the garage of his home in Scotts Valley in the forests above the Pacific Ocean beach town of Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco. Today, Zero is the world’s largest manufacturer of electric motorcycles, even including China where the many two-wheeled EV/Electric Vehicle products sold there are predominantly scooters.
I’ve been riding each new iteration of Zero’s products for the past six years, so I’ve been able to experience on a step-by-step basis the significant improvements in range and performance that their R&D team headed by former Buell chief engineer Abe Askenazi has delivered year on year during that period, since he joined Zero in 2010. But for 2016 it seemed that Abe & Co. had really made a big step forward with Zero’s all-new Z-Force IPM/Interior Permanent Magnet brushless motor, coupled with increased efficiency of their own batteries made in-house using imported cells, improving both range and charge capacity across the board. According to Zero, the IPM configuration produces power more efficiently at high speed, so the motor generates less heat via reduced magnet temperatures and also cools more rapidly, too. Its design increases efficiency by placing the magnets inside the rotor, where they’re better protected from magnetic interference and the thermal effects of the stator. An added spinoff benefit is that there’s reduced rotational inertia, resulting in greater responsiveness—just as a lightened crankshaft on a combustion engine spins up faster.
Zero claims its advanced cell chemistry has the highest energy density in the EV industry—and that includes Tesla Motors, its neighbor just 40 miles north of Zero’s Scotts Valley factory. For this year, Zero boosted energy density with more efficient lithium-ion battery cell chemistry, allowing its models with the $2674 2.9kWh Power Tank supplementary battery fitted in the receptacle in front of the “fuel tank” behind the steering head combining with the 13.0kWh main battery pack to offer a claimed range of 197 miles in urban use, or 98 miles at 70 mph on the highway, and a combined city/highway range of 108 miles—the first time this has exceeded 100 miles on any Zero model. Coupled with the new more potent powertrain that delivers a claimed 56% more torque at 106lb-ft/Nm143—more than a 98.1 lb-ft/Nm133 Kawasaki H2!—and 25% more horsepower at 67 bhp than in 2015, and the 660-amp controller necessary to convey this, it seemed this was now a zero-emissions motorcycle you could go places—and faraway places, at that, not only your daily commute.
So in effect I invited Zero management to make a bet with me that their claims for industry-leading range and performance would be attained in reality, by undertaking what transpired to be a 900-mile tour of Northern California, and it’s greatly to their credit that they agreed to go along with this. To do so, they furnished me with their new-for-2016 Zero DSR, the highest performance on/off-road dual-sport model the company has yet built, retailing at an MSRP of $15,995, rising to $18,669 fitted with the optional 2.9kWh Power Tank battery pack bringing the total onboard battery capacity to 15.9kWh. Remember, the higher costs of acquisition versus a conventional motorcycle are offset by the fact these are zero maintenance products. Apart from replacing brake pads and tires, and the Gates drive belt that’s now good for 25,000 miles, you ought never to have to visit your friendly local Zero dealer again, except when you want to.
However, recharging speed would obviously be a key issue, which Zero addressed by adding a top box to the two side panniers containing my luggage. This contained two Elcon 2.5kWh chargers, which when coupled up via a Zero Y-Adapter delivered around six times the charging speed of Zero’s 1.3kWh standard onboard charger. “For most customers the standard onboard charger is all they’ll ever need, since they charge the bike overnight or at work, and that’s the maximum speed charger you can safely run off any standard 110-volt U.S. wall outlet,” said Todd Andersen, Zero’s VP of Marketing & Sales. “But you’re going touring, and you won’t want to spend all day charging the battery, so we’ve hopped things up to give you more charging capacity with a non-factory approved aftermarket item that is promoted and sold by our number-one dealer in the country, Hollywood Electrics in Los Angeles.” It was crucial to my trip that they did this, for this allowed me to use the same CHAdeMO hookup as a Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf, which are plentiful all over the USA. This would allow the Zero’s combined 15.9kWh battery pack to be recharged from 5% to 95% charge in less than two hours, compared to almost 12 hours from a household socket.
But it’d be nice to have company, though—and if I was going to make an article about my E-tour, I’d need photos. Which is how come I was accompanied on my trip by my photographer mate Phil Hawkins, a fellow Brit living not far from the Zero factory in the San Francisco Bay Area, riding his Triumph Tiger 800XC. This would have the added benefit that he’d theoretically be ready to push the Zero via a footpeg to the nearest charging station if I ever ran out of “gas”! But how to find such charging stations? That’s easy, just log on to www.plugshare.com, a global resource which resolves the biggest issue you face when riding an E-bike, namely finding somewhere to refuel it. Best of all, this not only tells you where the charge points are, but what type is available, which ones are in use and which aren’t, and even if one is broken and unusable. Plug Share is a kind of online community for EV vehicle owners that is map driven—you tell them where you are, and it lists all available charging locations, everything from publically available ChargePoints, or Tesla stations nobody else can use, to outlets behind people’s houses that they make available to EV travellers, along with a cup of coffee while waiting. Yes, really—so strong is the growing American EV community that complete strangers will let you hook up to their home charging points to get you out of trouble.
Phil and I had company for the first part of our ride in very “British” conditions—i.e. it was raining!—after picking up the vaguely sinister-looking all-black Zero DSR at the firm’s Scotts Valley factory.
I plugged in for a free “fueling” top-up after the first 50 miles of snaking silently up through the redwood forests to Skyline Drive, the Bay Area’s favorite racer road leading to the famed Alice’s Restaurant for a late breakfast. The ride took us through a series of small logging towns whose main source of income is speeding tickets. Crawling through these at the prevailing near-walking pace speed limit was no handicap on the Zero in the same way I could hear it was for Phil on his Triumph behind me, but there was another hazard to watch out for if I got too far ahead of him, namely pedestrians who step out in front of you because they can’t hear you coming! The only sound the Zero makes at slow speeds comes from muted tire roar and a hint of chain lash, plus a subdued whine from the transmission.
Fortunately, the Zero’s Spanish-made J.Juan brakes did their job well without grabbing the front wheel thanks to the Bosch ABS fitted as standard, which allows you to squeeze as hard as you like to stop the pretty heavy 463-pound stock motorcycle (plus the added weight of the twin chargers in the topbox) from the high speeds it can attain in an ultra-short distance, aided by whatever regen level you’d opted for. There’s a choice of three different riding modes that are definitely well thought out, and while limiting top speed to 70 mph Eco mode has gentle acceleration and quite heavy regenerative braking as displayed on the dash when you back off the throttle, though this can be altered via an app on your iPhone. Sport is what is says on the label, with vivid acceleration and zero regen. It lets you keep up turn speed to flow through a series of bends climbing a winding hillside road where you don’t want to lose momentum via what amounts to engine braking. Then the Custom map can be tailored to suit your tastes via the Zero app on your smartphone, and the one they gave me on the DSR had maxed-out drive that would lift the front wheel slightly wide open, coupled with full regen, so was fine for descending a winding road, or swinging from side to side through a series of Esses.
Later in my tour, I discovered that rush hour begins early in California, so even at three p.m. the freeways were crowded. But lane splitting (legal in California, but nowhere else in the USA!) is a cinch on any electric bike, because you just twist, go or brake—no fiddling with the clutch lever and the gearshift to change gear back and forth, as I could hear Phil doing behind me on the Triumph. I can see why e-bikes are becoming must-have commuter conveyances in the Golden State.
Before heading up the mountain pass leading to our overnight destination at Lake Tahoe, we needed to make a stop to top up the charge for what would be a steep climb that’d drain the batteries quickly. Locating a government ChargePoint in the little town of Placerville, we stopped to hook up, but there was nowhere to go and nothing to do that didn’t involve my hitching a ride with Phil on his combustion bike to find a coffee stop or suchlike. I decided to stick around to make some notes, and it was just as well I did, because on one of my frequent checks to see how the recharge was going, I found the charging station had packed up—and I had only 84% of charge! Hmm. The sun was going down, and we needed to get going, so I selected Evo mode on the Zero and set off behind Phil now leading the way on the Triumph, to try to get extra range by slipstreaming him. We were now on U.S. 50, the legendary transcontinental highway first built in 1926 linking San Francisco, California, with Ocean City, Maryland, and we had to crest Echo Summit, its highest point in California at 7,382 feet, before dropping down to Lake Tahoe.
By now it was dark, and the road had got so steep that I couldn’t use Evo mode all the time, because this reduced torque so much that the fully loaded bike occasionally just lost momentum. So, hoping that I would at least reach the summit before running out of charge, and could then coast down to Tahoe, I selected Sport but backed off the throttle, then crouched down behind the DSR’s quite narrow screen to try to minimize wind resistance in slipstreaming Phil. Even so, the charge needle plummeted as we climbed ever higher, with marker signs every 1000 feet in elevation to remind me how high we were going. At least the e-motor was unaffected by altitude, unlike a combustion engine! I was down to just 7% charge when we at last crested the summit, rounding a bluff in the road to suddenly see the lights of Lake Tahoe spread out beneath us—itself 6,225 feet in altitude as it straddles the border between California and Nevada. But we still had another 15 miles to go before we reached the lakeside hotel, which my dash reading told me I wasn’t going to make, with just 12 miles of predicted range, better get your foot ready to push me, Phil, I thought.
But, regen to the rescue. The regenerative braking dialed in to the Zero’s controller has two different modes—one comes into play when you simply back off the throttle, and you can indeed feel some residual “engine braking” and watch the dash recording it when you do so. But there’s also a sensor which monitors your using either brake lever (foot or hand) which also dials in additional regen, and this is a factor in making the Zero stop so well, in spite of zero mechanical engine…eer, sorry, motor braking. But you can also dial up more or less regen via your smartphone, or alter the Custom riding mode and several other parameters via the Bluetooth enabled connectivity for both iPhone and Android mobile devices that’s included as standard, via the Zero Motorcycles app. There’s an optional mount to clip the phone to the handlebar.
So before leaving the Zero factory I’d asked Todd Andersen to dial in a high degree of regenerative braking to my Custom riding mode, which he did via my smartphone and the Zero app. It was about to pay off. Coasting down the descent gradient on U.S. 50 I saw the available charge on the DSR’s dash start to gain numbers, until by the time I was down on the valley floor and had to start using the throttle again I had 13% charge, and enough to make the hotel. I rolled in there after a 191-mile day with just 7% of charge left—you do the maths. We’d chosen the Marriott Hotel for two reasons – one, it offered free hookups in its basement garage for recharging, and two, though still in California it was a short five-minute walk across the state line into Nevada, home of the 24-hour Harrah Casino where we could eat late, as we did. I then set to work on the slot machines, aiming to earn back the $1.50 it had cost me in “fuel” getting this far. Five minutes later I was $3.15 ahead and ready for bed, having more than earned the cost of recharging the Zero during our entire trip. The Presidio access fee was the only time I paid to charge the Zero during our entire six-day ride.
Well, directly, anyway, for next morning I had an unpleasant surprise on checkout when the Marriott front desk added a $29.95 parking charge for each bike to the bill for parking them in the garage! The hookup was free, but you had to pay the same as a car or small truck to park it there. Shabby, very shabby. Having a great breakfast at much lower cost right next door at the Driftwood Café made me feel better about that, then we spent some time riding around the gloriously scenic southern end of Lake Tahoe before heading south towards Sonora and the Gold Country.
After a 168-mile day we stopped for the night in Sonoma at the no-frills Rodeway Inn run by the Singh family from India, and had a great meal at the Standard Pour brewery restaurant while sampling some of their home-brewed beers and cooking. Well worth the visit.
To recharge the Zero that night, I plugged it into the socket in my motel room and ran the extension lead Zero had provided me with through the window to the bike outside. Obviously for security reasons you can only do this while you’re in the room, but next morning the 24% charge remaining had been transposed into a full “tank” by the time we left after another great breakfast at Sonora Joe’s just round the corner. We covered the next 80 miles into the Sierra Nevada at what I’ll term sporting pace along the winding Highway 120, another great biking road that invited exploiting the Zero’s beautifully mapped digital throttle that delivers thrilling performance in a liquid-smooth manner. Yet once again I was impressed how responsive the 2016 Zero was with the reduced inertia in its new motor delivering great roll-on acceleration from 50 mph upwards to license-losing levels. And on the downgrade into Yosemite I saw the charge reading rise again, this time from 25% to 34% right in front of me, and with 19% charge remaining as we rode into Half Dome Village after covering exactly 80 miles, it would be reasonable to expect the dash’s claimed 33 miles of remaining range to be attainable, giving an overall range of 113 miles from a single charge at a good pace, but including the last 12 miles at the State Park’s 40 mph limit. Hooking up for a free recharge at one of the Park’s surprisingly few EV recharging points restored that to 100% in an hour and a half.
After a day spent taking in Yosemite’s majestic scenery it was time to head back to the Pacific Coast, and after a last cursory ride around the Valley floor we headed downhill through scenic Bear Valley then on to the gradually descending and mostly straight road leading to Merced, 90 miles away, and one of the main cities in the huge Californian market garden that is the San Joaquin Valley. There, I was invited to hook up by the large Merced Toyota dealership that refused to accept any money. Thanks, guys. We needed 90 minutes to return the batteries to 100%, while we had lunch at a nearby diner, then set off again heading for our overnight stop at Hollister, 80 miles away, where after a 172-mile day I recharged the bike’s batteries at a free hook-up behind the Town Hall, just round the corner from my motel room at the Hollister Inn.
Next day it was time to head over the hills to Monterey and nearby Carmel for a look around, before heading back up the coast to Santa Cruz and the Zero Motorcycles factory, where I arrived with 13% of charge remaining after a 98-mile ride. After covering a total of 891 miles in those six days with no electrical or other mishaps, no running out of charge (just!), but on the contrary the convenience of riding a twist-‘n’-go machine with significant performance and especially acceleration, and much better handling than I was expecting—especially fully loaded—I needed no further convincing that Zero has succeeded in making electric motorcycles practical for the long haul, as well as for shorter journeys. You do have to plan strategically, as Electric Terry warned me, but in a way that’s all part of the fun of going touring with an e-bike. And it’s undeniably satisfying when your plans work out, as well as being the closest thing to free travel you’re ever going to get, at least in the USA.
The Zero DSR had been a comfortable companion for the long haul thanks to its quite spacious 843mm seat height, surprisingly slim build, and zero vibes. My only criticisms of it are minor ones, which I’m sure Zero will address if as I hope America’s third largest motorcycle manufacturer develops a customer-ready Touring version of the model. The detachable side panniers need to be more substantial and better integrated into the styling, which is asking to be revised—at the moment Zero’s products look functional, rather than desirable, thanks to the battery block in mostly plain view. A bigger screen needs to be available, at least as an option, plus it needs a cruise control, and an outside ambient temperature display. The seat could be a bit more comfortable, although it’s adequate at present, and if it can be delivered without affecting range too adversely, heated grips would be a good option, too. But the basics are all there, and indeed I’d say that doing 180-mile days on an EV like this is much less tiring than on a combustion-engined bike. The lack of noise, vibration and heat really does make a difference over a long day in the saddle, especially with the convenience of not having to work the clutch lever and change gear to keep the engine at the right revs, which is especially tiring in traffic. And that’s before you think about the low, low cost of “tanking up.”
The pace of development of electric motorcycles continues to rise exponentially, although this shouldn’t be any surprise, just look at your cellphone and think back a mere six years to those pre-4G days, let alone two decades to those huge bricks we used to carry around, to appreciate the rate of advance in electronic and battery technology that’s making this possible. As the most practical all-round real world E-bikes currently available, Zero’s products undoubtedly represent the benchmark by which other future such bikes must be judged, and they are indeed now proper motorcycles that just happen to be powered by an electric motor, rather than an internal combustion engine. They’re the real deal for short rides or long ones, both. CN